Saturday, September 19, 2020

Why not buy a Performance Catamaran?

We used to get this question a lot... why weren't we going with a performance catamaran?  Well, sure, there are a lot of things to like about performance catamarans, chief amongst them is they go fast!  Some of them will do 20 knots!

Here are the main reasons why were leaning toward a comfortable production catamaran.  Let's start with the two main reasons:

Main issues with a performance catamaran:

1) Load-Carrying Capacity:

Performance catamarans get their speed in two ways, thinner hulls and a lighter boat.  Both of these elements impact load-carrying capacity.  Now, if you are a couple who doesn't mind basic minimalistic living, then load-carrying capacity isn't a big issue.  However, if you have a smaller performance cat you will be giving up on some things.  You must keep her light, so no washer/dryer.  Most likely, you will have minimalistic refrigeration and especially freezer space.  You can't take things like a dive compressor, or a lot of scuba gear.  You can't have a lot of people on board for extended cruising, since you have their weight, emergency water weight, and food.  Also, your living spaces will be smaller in the hulls.  But, can't you have load-carrying capacity and speed?  See main point #2, below.

2) Price:

With sufficient hull-length, you may be able to reach a decent amount of load-carrying capacity on a performance catamaran, but this comes at the cost of a high price.  If you are rich enough, by all means, you can have your cake and eat it too!  However, you are talking about a 50+ foot boat.  Something like an HH55, for example, will do the trick, but they have a starting price of about 2.5 million US dollars.  Yikes.  That is five times our budget!  Or, you could go with a Seawind 1600 for a million, which is still too much for our budget.  

A note on larger cats: A second problem with a larger performance cat (beyond the price) is that if you go beyond about a 50' boat, it becomes too large to fit into some of the places we want to go, like some canals.  They are also harder (and more expensive) to put in a marina.  Finally, it can be more difficult to find places to haul out.

3) Lack of comfort

I'm always a bit dismayed when other people talking types of cats skip over the issue of comfort, like it is not important in life.  Comfort is incredibly important, at least, to us and many other people!  Think about it.  Most of us spend a lot of money in life to be comfortable. We don't buy a crappy car that just gets us there, we buy one with windows, air-conditioning, shocks, comfy seats, stereos, etc.  We don't sleep on the hard floor.  Why not?  It is there, and is much cheaper!  No, we buy an expensive mattress.  Almost every aspect of your life has to do with making yourself more comfortable.  Since we do this for the rest of life, why wouldn't we want to do the same thing with our boat?  In fact, the whole point of our buying a catamaran in the first place is to be more comfortable!  Otherwise, some monohulls are much less expensive.  However, we want a boat that has more space, doesn't heel over much, and can take more of our friends and family for long trips to remote locations where we want air conditioning and lots of sports toys.

When you buy a performance catamaran of 44 - 46 feet length, you are sacrificing comfort for speed.  Now, I can hear some folks already saying "You can't put comfort before safety!"  This is absolutely true.  However, regardless of arguments about 'sailing around weather' and 'spending less time exposed due to swifter passages', there is no data out there that proves that slower cats are lost more frequently than faster ones!  They each have their safety advantages.  We believe (based on boat captains who own these kinds of boats) that speed keeps you out of more bad weather, while heavier boats are safer in bad weather.  Even if you don't agree with that statement, as far as we can tell from following disaster stories for the last fifteen years, we can't find a safety difference between these two types of cats.  Truthfully, the number of cats that are lost is surprisingly small, from either category.

So, if the numbers don't show one is safer than the other (and we can't see that they do) then why would we want to be less comfortable?  Now, you could argue that time out on the sea is less comfortable, so a faster cat is more comfortable since it cuts that time down.  This is true, unless you are giving up on other types of comforts to get that speed.  Cruisers generally spend far more time at anchor than on a passage.  Performance cats don't get there all that much faster than the comfort cats.  Mostly, this is due to the fact that performance cats rarely sail at their maximum speed while comfort cats mostly sail close to their maximum speed. You can look at the Arc finishes if you want to look at this for some real data.  If you want speed numbers, think that a performance cat that could sail at 20 knots will likely sail at about half that while a comfort cat that can sail at 10 knots will mostly sail about 7 or 8 knots.

However, yes, they still get there sooner, and that is really nice.  Yet, once you arrive, you have to live life on a far less comfortable boat!  Your beds are narrow, making it harder to get in and out (or make).  You don't have enough refrigeration and freezer space to stay out away from provisioning places for long periods.  (Our boat will last up to six months with four people on board, with enough frozen goods for that time).  You likely don't have air conditioning or a washer/dryer.  You don't have a dive compressor for scuba (a must for us).  You likely have a smaller tender, which is your car on a boat.  A larger one is needed for us with more people on board.  You probably have fewer water toys for having fun.  You probably don't have four electric bikes for shore excursions.  And, you just have less space to live on in general.

Again, if you are a minimalist couple, who wants to stomp on your clothing in the shower to wash them, or don't plan to have a lot of guests on board, or don't want to do a lot of different water sports, or don't want to go to more remote places for long periods, or you just have a large enough budget to buy a bigger boat, then a performance cat may be for you!  But, if you are like us, and you want to be just as safe and far more comfortable, then a heavier comfort catamaran is a better choice, again, unless you can afford a 50' performance cat.

4) Build Quality

OK, for some reason, I think everyone thinks a performance catamaran is automatically a better-built boat.  That is not necessarily true.  There are some more expensive heavier cats with high build quality!  However, let's say that you are buying a production cat from one of the big three (Lagoon, Fontaine Pajot, or Leopard).  It is easy to concede that these boats builders tend to skimp on certain aspects of a cat build to keep their prices competitive for the charter sales market.  However, it is also possible to take such a boat and modify and equip it for better bluewater performance.  You just have to budget this into your refit.  Most likely, you will need to put backing plates on anything that is under stress.  You might have to upgrade the deck hardware (blocks and such).  You will likely want to reinforce some of the bulkheads (each boat is a different case, but you might need to look into this).  You may want to change the sail plan for better performance.  However, all of this can be improved to the point where the boat is fully capable and safe as a blue water cruiser, sure, slow... but safe. 

Is there a compromise between Comfort and Performance cats?

So what about a compromise boat?  Sure, there are a few.  The new Seawind 1370 comes to mind here, which is why it is getting a lot of talk around the dock, so to speak.   It has a price of around $800,000 to $900,000 (fully decked out), yet is still a fairly good performance boat, capable of hitting that 18-knots of speed on a perfect day and point of sail.  

There are no released numbers for actual load-carrying capacity (yet), though Seawind claims the 1370 can be loaded heavily without hitting their performance numbers too much.  What 'heavily loaded' means to Seawind is yet to be known.  I suspect this is a number somewhere around 5000 lbs, but this is only a guess.  Finally, like all compromises, you are losing certain things.  The living space is good, but not as good, the speed is also really good, but perhaps not the fastest of all performance cats.

However, there is no doubt that this is a nice boat.  If we could afford one, it might be under consideration, especially if we were a couple looking for a cruising boat.  However, the 1370 is still too expensive for some of us and a tad too small for our needs.

There is one other choice, Schionning Designs has a 50' performance cat with many of the features of a comfort catamaran.  Best yet, if you are willing to do the work of building their kit yourself, it is a very affordable boat at around $530,000, finished for blue water sailing... but there is no free lunch.  You have to be willing to spend 6 to 10 thousand hours of labor to obtain that boat.

Minor issues with a performance catamaran:

Once you get past the main issues, there are a few minor ones, as well:

1) Narrow Beds and hulls (see boat layouts, above).  The narrow beds are caused by the narrow hulls.  You aren't going to have island beds, or they are going to suspend the forward beds over the bridge deck (which isn't ideal when it comes to slapping noise and jolts).  It also cuts down on deck storage.

2) Typically, they have fewer heads which are often 'wet' heads.  Since we want to have a lot of crew onboard, at times, we want separate ensuite dry heads.  This adds weight and is, therefore, usually not available on a mid 40' performance cat.

3) If you do add a lot of water toys (a heavy dinghy, extra people (and all the weight that comes with them), washing machines, and extra refrigeration/freezer space (for those extra people) you will likely overload a mid-size performance catamaran, thus killing that 'performance'.  Now you have a boat that doesn't have room in the hulls and doesn't perform well either.

4) Safety in heavy seas.  This is another questionable thing on a lighter boat.  Once you get caught by bad weather, and admittedly, with a faster cat you are less likely to be caught simply because you have a better chance of outrunning it.  However, that being said, with the sea being a harsh mistress, at some point, you will still get caught out in bad weather, even in that faster performance cat.  At that point, the lighter boat is more of a disadvantage.  It is like a piece of Styrofoam floating on the surface.  A massive gust of wind could pick it up (see what happened to cats in hurricane Imra, they were flipped right over!).  The lighter cat will also tend to crest over the tops of waves rather than mush through.  A heavier cat is just going to be a bit safer in those terrible conditions.  Some of this is mitigated by a larger performance cat, but again, the high price is standing in your way.

What about the advantages of a Performance Cat?

OK, yes, there are advantages.  Remember that everything is a compromise and each boat, no matter what type, has its advantages over another.  I have listed a lot of advantages to a comfort cat, so here are the best things about a performance cat.

1) You get places faster, spending less time exposed to weather on passage and, therefore, more time at destinations (which is the point).  However, how much faster?  Typically, you can't sail too fast on typical seas without being uncomfortable and breaking things.  10 knots or slower is best.  However, a performance cat can sail at 10 knots while a comfort cat is down in the 7-8 knot range.  So, yes, you will get there faster than a comfort boat.

2) You put less stress on your rig because you require less sail area to go the same speed.  Absolutely true.  We plan to go with synthetic standing rigging, just for this reason.  It is far stronger than traditional steel so the extra stress (at least on that) isn't as strong.  We will also beef up some of the other rigging as well (blocks, backing plates, etc.).  Still, this is an advantage to performance cats.

3) You sail faster in light winds (when your extra speed is really useful compared to a heavier cat).  This is also very true!  In fact, this is the primary reason we would love to own a performance catamaran over a comfort cat!  This is, assuming, all the other advantages of the comfort cat were included. 

4) Dagger Boards for pointing closer to the wind, sailing faster, and entering shallower places.  Most performance cats will have dagger boards.  These allow you to point a little higher.  Of course, they come with disadvantages as well, they require more difficult maintenance and are far more work to use.  And, mini keels are better for beaching the boat and doing some work on the hulls.  Still, since dagger boards allow you to your boat point higher and also help with slippage as you tack up wind, they are desirable and we really want them... but may have to give up on that one.


We would love a performance catamaran.  And, if some company (we're talking about you, Seawind) wants to give us a big discount on one, sure, we'd go with a 1600!  (We feel that the 1370 doesn't have quite enough living space for a full-time crew of 4 to 6 people and up to 8 at times).  The Seawind 1370 is better suited to a couple with occasional short term guests.  The problem is, our budget is never going to get us a production, performance catamaran that is large enough to carry all our people and stuff.  In the end, that pretty much decides the issue for us.  The only way we could get a large enough one at a decent price would be to build a Solitaire 1490, ourselves.

We simply weighed all the people, food, fuel, water, watermakers, compressors, sports equipment, and various other necessary stuff we need for our voyage and it came out to 7,000 to 9000 pounds, depending on the situation.  Any boat without the load-carrying capacity to handle that much weight is not capable of taking us on our voyage.  Only a 50' or larger performance cats even come close, and even then, some still can't handle that much weight.  

Where does that leave us?  With our budget, we may have to stick to the 44'-48', comfort oriented, production catamaran market.  These are not performance cats by any stretch of the imagination!  They do, however, come with some good benefits.  These types of boats have lots of space, dry heads, roomy beds, and a whole mass of load-carrying capacity (9,000 to 13,000 lbs, depending on the model and manufacturer).  Because of that, we get washing machines, extra refrigeration/freezer space, a big dive compressor, and 5 kw of solar panels.  In essence, a whole lot of comfort!  They are also already available on the used market and are well within our price range, even after we add in a major refit to make them bluewater capable.  We get nearly everything we want, only sacrificing some light wind sailing speed that we make up for with electric motoring.  So, we'll get to our destination a little slower, but be much more comfortable during the voyage and while at anchor.  That's where you spend at least 80% of your time.  As long as you prepare the boat so it is safe, then, after that, comfort is king!

ADDENDUM: Recently, the prices of used comfort catamarans has skyrocketed and they are no longer a viable price option for our voyage, so we have decided to bite the bullet and construct a Solitaire 1490 performance 50' catamaran that we customized.  For many reasons we think this is the perfect catamaran for us.  Please go to our website and read about The Boat.  However, in short, the Solitaire 1490 hit 80% of our wish list for a perfect boat... and then Schionning Designs allowed us to make changes to their design which gets the boat to nearly to 100% of our goals.  However, even the stock 1490is a nice compromise between performance, comfort, and price, as long as you are willing to do all the labor of building the boat.  Here is the Solitaire 1500 (as we are calling our customized version).

Opinions and needs will vary which means that the best boat for you isn't the same as it is for us.  Everyone's needs are different based on things like how many people will be living onboard, what toys they want to take with you, where you are planning to sail, how long you plan to stay in remote places, and the current market compared to your budget.

Normally, there is no perfect boat, only the boat that comes closest to your needs.  For us, we get to design and build exactly the boat we want!  However, it is only perfect for us.  For anyone, (including us) to tell you that one boat is better than another is ridiculous.  Only you know what you need and therefore, which boat comes closest to your dream.  Everything we talked about in this post is from our point of view... so take it all with a grain of salt!  So, why did we write this?  We posted this article so that the people who happen to be looking for the same kind of sailing lifestyle as us can follow our logic to see if it applies to their situation.